Childish Gambino performs at Preakness InfieldFest's main stage on Saturday afternoon. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The Preakness InfieldFest — the all-day music event leading up to the big race — was billed as a concert, but during Armin van Buuren's 90-minute headlining set on Saturday afternoon, the scene looked more like a high-intensity workout. Fans were in perpetual motion as the Dutch electronic dance music star played a briskly moving set of his trademark EDM subgenre, trance.
To the uninitiated, van Buuren's set of patient buildups and their eventual cathartic releases could feel like an exercise in repetition. But the physicality of the music seemed to appeal to the largely twenty-something crowd. The bass drop — when the music temporarily stops and then crashes back down in a ribcage-shaking manner — was met with cheers, raised fists and cups of ice tossed in the air. (It's an EDM custom to throw glowsticks in the air at the drop.)
Van Buuren, for his part, played the role of amiable host, sometimes playing songs he made (like the new single "Another You") and at times spinning popular trance hits like Lost Frequencies' "Are You With Me." Like other big-name EDM stars Skrillex and deadmau5, van Buuren mostly forged a connection with the crowd via the music. Rather than talk about the Preakness or even himself, he smiled widely with his arms outstretched. During major drops, he pogo-ed up and down and clapped to encourage the crowd to respond with energy.
"Baltimore, if you are ready for a state of trance, please raise your hands," van Buuren said politely while invoking the name of his international radio show ("A State of Trance") that has helped keep his star shining.
By nature, DJ sets require bells and whistles to keep the crowd engaged. Van Buuren was no exception, and his set included confetti raining down on the crowd, lights that were hard to notice in the midafternoon and a large video screen showing mostly machine imagery, like the inner workings of a complex computer. It felt sterile, and it was kind of boring, but no one seemed to mind.
It appeared that most of the crowd only needed the constant presence of a beat, rumbling bass and staccato synthesizer runs. Fists, many with the pink Mug Club beer cups in hand, were constantly in the air. Van Buuren had fulfilled his duty.
In terms of rap at InfieldFest, what a difference a year makes. Last year, Nas performed tracks from his indelible first album, "Illmatic," to a crowd that respected a legend's legacy. On Saturday, Childish Gambino — the hip-hop moniker of actor Donald Glover, and the other InfieldFest main stage performer — seemed like a more natural fit for an event that is geared toward a young crowd. He speaks their language.
His lyrics are filled with references to social media and boasts that would make for punchy Tweets and status updates. (Released in 2013 and nominated for Best Rap Album at the Grammy's, Gambino's last record was called "Because the Internet.") The crowd not only loved his music, but many fans — of varying backgrounds — knew the songs verbatim. His 75-minute set, which featured an unflashy four-piece live band behind him, was energetic, confident and earnest.
Gambino's sincerity can be difficult to take seriously, even with his talent and Hollywood charm on display. (That wasn't all — the rapper performed without his shirt, exposing the six-pack abs that helped land him a role as a stripper in the upcoming "Magic Mike XXL.") That's because, more often than not, his lyrics are vapid, and occasionally downright dumb.
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"I don't eat pasta, everything is low-carb / I don't fly coach now, say I fly Goyard," he rapped on "Black Faces." Sometimes he's innocuous, and often Gambino is barely clever on the surface. Upon the slightest closer reading, so many of his sophomoric puns and groan-inducing punchlines crumble.
Not all of it caused eye-rolls. His best song, "Telegraph Ave. (Oakland)," supplied a surprisingly sensual groove, and the crowd clearly anticipated recognizable hits like "3005" and "Heartbeat."
Lyric-parsing aside, Gambino rocked a crowd with an entertaining set filled with loose freestyling and dynamic musical moments (the hard-rock breakdown during "Sober" was a highlight). Maybe next time he will return with something more interesting to say.